I have been re-reading some of the most significant essays by art historian Victor Stoichita. Among them, A Short History of the Shadow, emerges as a book that is particularly relevant in the context of Marcius Galan’s new project for Galeria Francisco Fino, in Lisbon.
First published in 1997, this essay is an analysis of a primordial theme of Western visual culture, but also of the history of art and of images: the representation and the meaning of shadows. In the first chapter, Stoichita offers us two quotes from Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, which I transcribe below.
The first tells us about the origins of painting:
“The question as to the origin of the art of painting is uncertain […]. The Egyptians declare that it was invented among themselves six thousand years ago before it passed over into Greece – which is clearly an idle assertion. As to the Greeks, some of them say it was discovered at Sicyon, others in Corinth, but all agree that it began with tracing an outline around a man’s shadow and consequently that pictures were originally done in this way, but the second stage when a more elaborate method had been invented was done in a single colour and called monochrome, a method still in use at the present day (Natural History, xxxv, 15).” (p. 11)
The second describes the origins of sculpture and of all the arts that are linked to or contingent on lines and shadows:
“Enough and more than enough has now been said about painting. It may be suitable to append to these remarks something about the plastic art. It was through the service of that same earth that modelling portraits from clay was first invented by Butades, a potter of Sicyon, at Corinth. He did this owing to his daughter, who was in love with a young man; and she, when he was going abroad, drew in outline on the wall the shadow of his face thrown by the lamp. Her father pressed clay on this and made a relief, which he hardened by exposure to fire with the rest of his pottery […]” (p. 11).
Widely known since Antiquity, these stories were prevalent throughout the centuries in Western thought and culture. Nevertheless, I refer to them because, like Stoichita tells us, they pinpoint the origins of artistic representation to a relationship between reality and its double, in the difference between shadow and light.
The historian goes even further, stating that this «negative» birth of Western artistic representation (the idea that painting and sculpture emerge from the absence of the object, in the presence of its projection) is so important that the dialectics of this relation informs all history of art. He then adds another interesting point: if artistic representation is born out of a primitive shadow, the first painting referred to by Pliny is nothing more than the representation of a representation, this is, the copy of a copy (p. 12).
Following this line of thought, Stoichita establishes a singular rapport between the Plinyan myth and Plato’s Cave, in which the philosopher compares humankind with people imprisoned in a cave, only able to see the shadows of objects. The author writes:
“If they have never been studied together, it is probably due primarily to the highly risky nature of such an enterprise. Plato and Pliny speak of different things within different contexts. However, several factors would justify their being read as a dialogue: they both deal with myths of origin (with Pliny the myth of art and with Plato the myth of knowledge); the myth regarding the birth of artistic representation and the one regarding the birth of cognitive representation are centred on the motif of projection; this early projection is a dark spot – a shadow.” (p. 7-8)
Present in both stories, the notions of illusion, shadow, echo and reflection support Stoichita’s thesis that, if the primeval illusion is of a visual nature, then shadows are the matrix of all optical illusions.
A shadow is a projection of a body or object, an illusion created by a discontinuity of light, the simulacrum of a transient reality. In the world of optical illusions, but also in the world of art, shadows precede the mirror as the instrument of illusion and deception.
Thus, we arrive at Exercício de Divisão, the first large-scale artistic intervention in this space, a former industrial warehouse converted into an art gallery.
When we enter the main room, we are immediately confronted with a duplicate space, the suggestion of a line that divides the gallery into two halves along a longitudinal axis, forcing us to interpret the «other half» of that space as the mirror image of the one we are standing on. However, as we go through the room and walk around the artworks hanging from the beams, or on the walls and floor, we are faced with the doubt: the things we see, are they the shadows of the objects, or their reflections? Is this a duplicate reality or the simulation of a duplicate reality? Is it just an optical illusion? Or is it a spectral repetition that magnetizes our gaze as it mirrors itself infinitely?
With this work, Galan challenges the spectator’s perception. Once again, he creates a perceptual conflict between what we see and what we imagine seeing, between what’s real and what’s virtual, while inviting us to consider the phenomenological and gestaltic nature of contemporary art.
Exercício de Divisão is an experiment, the fiction of an illusion that has been crystallized in time and space; it is an «open work» that awaits the viewer’s gaze to develop into a world of visual and interpretative possibilities. The artist invites us to inhabit this space of illusion, offering an experience that is both visual and corporeal. Highlighting the importance of perceiving what we see, the challenge is that we move from one reality to the other, from reality into unreality, entering a speculative and fictional world of visual effects. This a work of art that deepens our relationship with the visible, allowing us to recognize a series of subtle poetic operations that play with our perception of space and of everything that’s happening within it.
After experiencing several stages of perception and reaction, as they recognize the deception and identify the visual tricks deployed by the artist, the viewer suddenly becomes both an actor and an accomplice. As we get used to the space, we start noticing the subtle plays of light and shadow, the empty iron frames projecting the reflections and shadows of non-existent glass, the interventions in architectural elements, and almost imperceptible color variations. That mirror image is a virtual and illusory projection, the looking glass of a utopia, a place without place; but it is also a heterotopia through which the gallery itself is transformed into a heterotopic environment, open to the outside world. Although it is accessible to all, once inside we are confronted with its deceptive nature and discover that we have just entered nowhere. A window that opens into the virtual, into a speculative mirror-world where reality might be revealed to us. Just like shadows, mirrors duplicate images, they reveal our double.
Going back to Pliny and to the idea that the origins of Painting may lie in a contour line, this is, in line drawing, it is important to note the relevance of drawing in Galan’s work. The continued use of freehand drawing, sketching and graphic annotations, emerges as a tool for organizing thought, but also as an instrument of research, experimentation, and spatial organization. In fact, many of his works are developed between the two-dimensionality of the graphic image and the suggestion of the three-dimensional; it is through its most pure and simple form — the line — that Galan’s works and large-scale installations relate to drawing. Like in previous works of his, in this show lines also emerge as a reflection on new political, economic and cultural boundaries. In this case, these boundaries are the new restrictions imposed by the gentrification of the city and of the communities of Marvila, Beato, and Xabregas; neighborhoods that, in the last decade, have been transformed by the many artists’ studios and art galleries that have settled here. In this way, each one of Galan’s projects establishes a different and unique relationship with the space, incorporating architectonic and structural elements of the museum or art gallery where it is shown. Space does not function solely as a container, but as a substance that builds up, puts in and adds new layers of meaning; it becomes part of the work.
In a not so long ago broken down and forgotten place, Marcius Galan offers us a specular experience that temporarily destabilizes our perceptual and interpretative processes, convoking notions of repetition, equilibrium and symmetry, but also the dualities we perceive between one and its double, reality and appearance, presence and absence. In this perspective, Exercício de Divisão is a call for imagination, an experience of representation that affirms itself through the ambiguous and ambivalent relationships it establishes with the visible, the object, the space (architecture), and the viewer.
i) Victor I. Stoichita, A Short History of the Shadow, Reaktion Books, London, 1997.
ii) Michel Foucault, “Des Espace Autres” the text was published by the French journal Architecture /Mouvement/ Continuité in October, 1984, was the basis of a lecture given by Michel Foucault in March 1967.
iii) Michel Foucault, “Heterotopia” and “The Utopian Body”, two radio lectures delivered by Foucault in 1966. Published in Sensorium, MIT Press, 2006, pp. 229-34.